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Derrick Z. Jackson

Community colleges’ new clout

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / July 18, 2009
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FOR DECADES, American presidents lauded the working stiffs and immigrants who fill our community colleges, but then stiffed them during budget time. That ended this week when President Obama made one of his most welcome proposals of his first year, a $12 billion, 10-year plan to boost community colleges.

Obama called this a “historic step,’’ the biggest recognition of the importance of community colleges since the GI Bill and President Truman’s efforts that doubled the number of community colleges and increased their enrollment by seven times.

The raw infusion of cash for infrastructure, challenge grants, and online classes, if averaged out equally over the next decade, represents a 60 percent increase in direct federal spending on community colleges. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin education and sociology researcher, said this was stunning since two months ago she co-authored a Brookings blueprint on transforming community colleges that called for a doubling of direct federal spending, from $2 billion a year to $4 billion a year.

This was close enough for her. “The president is setting a real high bar for himself, a very ambitious bar,’’ Goldrick-Rab said by phone. “Nobody should think this is peanuts. It blew my expectations. The huge key to me is that he was not talking just about job training, which is the traditional way most people and politicians view community colleges. I’m not demeaning job training, but we know how this status stuff works in education. I’ve taken photos of community colleges where the buildings are no place for adults.’’

President Bush touted a $250 million job-training program, but it was only half-funded after opponents in Congress said the administration was robbing other valuable programs to pay for it. “By talking about infrastructure and improving the quality of instruction itself, the president is saying, in a way we haven’t heard, that community colleges are places worth going to,’’ Goldrick-Rab said.

George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, also praised the plan, but said that because such schools have been neglected for so long, the catch-up to remotely mirror the quality of four-year colleges is immense. According to the Delta Cost Project on college spending, a consortium of higher-education policy makers, the average per-student spending at community colleges is about one-third that at four-year public universities and a sixth of the per-student spending at private colleges.

Yet community colleges bear the brunt of cutbacks, even though enrollment even before the recession grew twice as fast as for four-year colleges, according to Brookings, and now stands at between 6 million to 6.5 million students. In 1987, federal per-student spending at four-year colleges was three times more than at community colleges. That gap has grown to five times more.

Already, Boggs said, Obama’s announcement has been somewhat sobered by a couple of phone calls from community college advocates in hard-hit California and the Northeast who say that politicians are already sniffing around to see what they can cut from community colleges because of Obama’s $12 billion proposal. “I’m still worried that we could be turning away hundreds of thousands of students,’’ Boggs said.

Alan Berube, a senior Brookings fellow in metropolitan policy and blueprint co-author with Goldrick-Rab, said the $12 billion “doesn’t radically change the financial picture for these institutions.’’ He said the most important effect of the money may be that for the first time since Truman, community colleges can leverage their new-found status with the president with state and local governments, foundations, and the private sector.

Here in Boston, for instance, instead of making Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges easy, perpetual whipping posts for low graduation rates in the face of a complex student body that elite colleges need not contend with, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, and civic and industry leaders should immediately huddle with the schools to maximize the challenge grants.

“For the most part, community colleges haven’t had a seat at the table in their cities and towns,’’ Berube said. “This has a chance at bringing them to the table. A seat is long overdue.’’

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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